Myth: Food will save you.
Ok, I didn’t read the book Julie and Julia. And I shouldn’t be surprised that the Nora Ephron movie based on same sells a sunny, idealized empowerment narrative. And yes, Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child is truly amazing and a delight to watch. And maybe (likely) I’m just bitter because I, like Julie Powell, lived in Queens in 2002, worked in an office by day, cooked by night, and dreamed of being a “real” writer. But I still feel the need to call out this movie’s premise, namely: cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Master the Art of French Cooking in 365 days in a tiny kitchen can, as is repeatedly stated in the film, “save you,” make you a better person, and redeem your many flaws.
What was Julie Powell saved from? Working at the Lower Manhattan Development Council? Saved from living above a pizzeria? As Julia Child would say, “Boo hoo.” And I note that Powell’s marriage, the bumpy patches of which were resolved in the movie, is actually the subject of her next book, Cleaving, which is about butchery. And breakup.
I’m not sure what the real Julia Child’s objection to Powell’s blog was, but I suspect it was something along the lines of “Well, I already did that, so why are you bothering?” Child’s creation was epoch-making because of what it was, and when it was, and what it did to American food, and we should all be grateful. But what good does a slavish replication of her achievement do?
Child threw herself into the Paris culinary world when she found herself there with her husband’s diplomatic posting, and so rapidly transcended the language and cultural barriers to her cooking dreams that one forgets they were ever there in the first place. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was Child’s gift to America.
Powell, as depicted in the movie, found herself in a Long Island City apartment because it was close to her husband’s office, and complained about being there from Day 1. She shopped, at least in the movie, at Dean and DeLuca in Manhattan. (Except for the fish store where she buys the unreasonably large lobsters for the thermidor, which seems to have been filmed at my favorite Astoria fish store, on the corner of 30th avenue and 30th Street. And the boeuf for the bourguignon at the last minute when the Manhattan-purchased beef was disastrously scorched).
The irony being that if there are any new food frontiers to be crossed in this day and age, they’re to be found in Queens, the world’s most culturally diverse municipality. In Astoria, I lived directly next store to the main branch of the Queens-based Trade Fair grocery chain, where you could buy Bulgarian feta, freshly butchered halal beef, or Bangladeshi eggplant 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I wish I’d blogged about it.